Buy, Buy, Buy
Marketing Happiness, Consuming Idealism
We humans systematically repeat certain mistakes. As consumers, we overestimate the wonderful effects of what we buy, and we overestimate how long we'll feel delighted with our purchases. Advertisers, of course, fan the flames of these mistakes. Alex Noury evaluates the situation.
by Alex J. Noury
“The punishment was the crime ... Man was destined to wear out his body in the vain attempt to satisfy it, because in obeying his own desires he had disobeyed God. By putting his love of self before the love of Him alone who could suffice, man became the slave of his own needs.” [De civitate Dei, Aurelius Augustinus (354-430)]
One could argue the original sin was a blessing to the American marketing industry. Not only are marketers provided with a willing population on which to focus advertisements, but a population enslaved to the ceaseless yearning to fulfill their carnal desires. American consumer culture is a phenomenon in and of itself. Perhaps, it is the wealth of this model capitalist nation that provides us with the ability to consume millions of dollars worth of goods and services each year. What inspires us to consume such an “impressive” quantity of products and services? Is it our enslavement to materialism, according to Augustinus, that inspires us to spend our hard earned dollars? Or, is it the result of an impressively effective marketing industry's ability to create demand? I believe the answer lies somewhere in between.
Every weekend, in towns and cities throughout the United States, voluminous shopping malls are packed with citizens ready and willing to empty their wallets (or, more appropriately, fill their credit cards) to obtain luxury items and/or impulse purchases. Middle and upper-class Americans simply have a will to buy. How many of these purchased goods and services fulfill a genuine need or utility to the consumer? What percentage of these items was purchased because they promised to fill a void that the consumer did not know existed?
Kalman Applbaum, in a 1998 article in Current Anthropology, notes that, “marketing is the commoditization and signification for purposes of commoditization of ideas, people, experiences, and things.” The marketing industry's goal is to reify demand for goods and services that were not previously desired, or strongly desired, by the consumer. They aim to inspire interest in products through “commodification” and “signification.” Applbaum further notes,“…market researchers can be seen as, first, translating consumer aspirations, fears, desires, and beliefs into tangible understandings for marketers (e.g., 'research shows that 60% of Americans believe that people with yellow teeth tend to have bad breath'); marketers can then transform these understandings into commoditized, salable form (e.g., 'a toothpaste that both whitens teeth and freshens breath').”In this sense, marketers can be seen as sculptors of product demand. The industry aims to persuade the consumer that s/he will be happier after purchasing their product. Do they succeed at their mission? Does the purchase of said product actually fill a void in our life, which we may or may not have realized existed?
Dr. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, and his colleagues have researched the decision-making process that aims to maximize happiness. Although not intended, this work sheds light on the marketing industry's ability to create demand where it was previously nonexistent. The industry not only creates interest in a product, but often manages to legitimize its inflated cost (e.g. fashionable blue jeans costing $70). Despite the fact that alternative products exist for a fraction of the cost, marketing informs us that we will be happier with the high-end item (i.e. the Cadillac over the Ford, the Heineken over the Budweiser, the Bose over the GE, etc.). As noted in a September 2003 New York Times article by Jon Gertner, the purchase of such products will, most likely, result in “less intense and more transient” happiness, despite one's predicted levels. Gilbert and his colleague, Tim Wilson, identify the difference between expected levels of happiness or sadness, and the actual levels experienced, as the “impact bias.” Gertner notes, “the phrase characterizes how we experience the diminishing excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy.”
Does this happiness last only as long as it takes the manufacturers to market the next version/model? The marketing industry often tells us we will have missed a great opportunity if we do not buy the given good or service. Gilbert explains that this forecast is often misunderstood. We often overestimate regret from missed experiences. Gernter comments, “when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move on to the next thing or event and almost certainly make another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.” According to Wilson, we often adapt to a new event or product, thus making it “ordinary” and no longer generating happiness to expected levels.
Despite the consumer's inevitable normalizing of their acquisition, predictions of high levels of happiness are continually connected to new purchases. “Affective forecasting,” as Gilbert and his colleagues title this phenomenon, is highly faulty among American consumers. The marketing industry employs their understanding of this in an effort to stimulate, and often create, demand for new and/or improved goods and services. And so, the cycle of consumer manipulation continues, yet perhaps at the consumer's acceptance of this situation. Are American consumers hopelessly optimistic, or perpetually enslaved to the original sin?
Either way, it is this longing for goods and services that keeps this capitalist machine running, and running well. Challenging this reality may result in our realization of the impact bias, thus potentially leading us to reach several conclusions. The first being that our pursuit is fruitless, for actual levels of happiness attained by purchasing new goods or services will never reach the high levels we expect them to. Secondly, that regardless of our purchase, we will normalize it to a relatively constant level. In this sense, we will be neither terribly happy or terribly sad. Or, thirdly, that the pursuit of happiness cannot be fulfilled through material items and thus should not be sought by such means. The latter would result in an ideological revolution among American consumer culture, and thus would challenge the system as a whole. If this situation were to come to life, the marketing industry's role would be greatly diminished.
Alex J. Noury is a recent graduate of the University of Florida Anthropology Masters program. He has studied the cultural influences on micro-entrepreneurship in Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles and is currently employed at the National Institute of Health. Alex is the author of Intertribal Trade on the Great Plains: Expanding control on a changing frontier, published in the Florida Journal of Anthropology (Spring 2002). He looks forward to any questions and/or comments regarding his work. You can e-mail him at: Alex10k@yahoo.com
Copyright 2003 by Alex Noury. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission of Alex Noury.
For additional perspectives see Youngsters Taught to be Materialistic
Email this article Sign up for free Progress Report updates via email
What's your opinion? Tell your views to The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?